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Trump adds grandiose promises to campaign pitch

President Trump pumps his fist
President Trump pumps his fist as he finishes speaking during an event at the Whirlpool Corporation facility in Clyde, Ohio, on Aug. 6, 2020.
(Susan Walsh / Associated Press)

The payroll tax, a bedrock of the American retirement system since 1941, will end as soon as President Trump is reelected, he promised last weekend.

A new Iran nuclear deal will come to pass a month after that, he said Monday, around the same time as a new national healthcare plan, a middle-class tax cut and a string of trade agreements around the globe.

“If we win the election, we’ll have deals with a lot of countries very fast,” Trump vowed.

Trump had planned on campaigning this year with the slogan “Promises Kept.” As his reelection prospects have dimmed amid a devastating pandemic and a deep recession, Trump has shortened the message to one word: Promises.

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This is not the type of ambitious governing agenda most presidents roll out as they seek a second term. There are no white papers explaining the math, policy teams building legislative coalitions or national security experts laying out the geopolitical conditions and trade-offs.

Instead, it’s Trump, who has flubbed repeated requests to specify his second-term agenda, making grandiose and, in some cases, pie-in-the-sky pledges that often catch even fellow Republicans by surprise.

Trump clearly has fulfilled some of his 2016 campaign pledges, including a crackdown on both legal and illegal immigration, more conservative federal judges and a rollback of environmental regulations. But his record shows little evidence that he is likely to succeed where he has failed in the past.

The president spent part of his first year in office trying to repeal the Affordable Care Act, known as Obamacare. He failed, even with Republican control of both houses of Congress.

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Since then, he has repeatedly promised to release a replacement plan “in two weeks.” He has yet to do so, and there is little public support for dismantling America’s healthcare system as millions fight a virus that has claimed more than 164,000 American lives.

Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear accord in 2018 and has had no known negotiations with Tehran about a possible replacement. Other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, which were signatories to the deal, have largely backed Iran in the standoff.

His lengthy efforts to craft a trade pact with China produced a nominal “Phase 1” deal and have since broken down. Relations between Washington and Beijing also have soured over a host of other economic and security disputes.

Trump’s promise to eliminate the payroll tax is a nonstarter on Capitol Hill, where the tax has bipartisan backing because it supports Social Security, Medicare and other popular programs. Republican lawmakers even rebuffed Trump’s efforts to eliminate the tax temporarily while the coronavirus crisis persists, as the president sought to do Saturday.

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“It’s like a bad imitation of Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres or a game show host because at least they have real stuff to give away,” said former Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.). “With him, it’s just a bunch of empty promises and I think people have realized that.”

None of this has mattered to Trump, who believes in his abilities as a salesman. Making bombastic promises helped him win in 2016, when he repeatedly vowed to make Mexico pay for a border wall, eliminate the national debt and rebuild the nation’s infrastructure. He did none of those things.

The tactic failed in the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats won control of the House despite Trump’s last-ditch promise of a postelection tax cut.

Now the president’s stubbornly rosy view of the virus that has infected more than 5 million Americans and put 30 million out of work has hurt his once-strong reelection bid. Trump promised this week that Americans soon would have hundreds of millions of vaccine doses, although the prospects for a safe, reliable vaccine are still uncertain.

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“The turning point was when he effectively abandoned ship on COVID,” said David Gergen, an advisor to four presidents. “I can’t remember any president making as many bad, dumb decisions in a row as this president has in recent weeks. It’s almost every time something comes up, he goes the wrong way from what his party wants.”

Although he had never held public office, many voters gave the flamboyant former New York businessman the benefit of the doubt in 2016.

This year, polls show many voters believe Trump is incompetent, a view exacerbated by his administration’s multiple failures to control the pandemic — and his attempts to blame others, at one point saying “I don’t take responsibility at all.”

“He came into Washington with this notion that as president, you could just pick up a wand and, through sheer force of will, people would just do what you needed them to do,” said Timothy O’Brien, a Trump biographer who worked for Michael R. Bloomberg’s presidential campaign in the Democratic primaries.

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O’Brien argues fewer voters will believe Trump’s promises this time around. “Four years ago, he just had a TV show. Now he has a record,” he said.

Even some of Trump’s media allies have begun pushing back against his latest promises.

Geraldo Rivera repeatedly pressed Trump during a radio interview last week on his promise to help so-called Dreamers. Trump has fought unsuccessfully to block the Obama program known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which allowed migrants who were brought to the United States illegally as minors to remain in the country.

“DACA’s going to work out, Geraldo,” Trump said, using the acronym for the program.

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“So when? When? You’ve been telling me that for a while,” Rivera asked.

After telling Rivera to “just tell people to relax,” Trump pivoted to a slew of other promises that would bear fruit — he insisted — once his opponents, at home and abroad, realize he is sticking around for another four years.

“That first week is going to be very good if I win,” Trump said.

The tactic is not new for Trump. His 1987 book, “The Art of the Deal,” preached “truthful hyperbole,” an “innocent form of exaggeration” that sold condos by playing to people’s fantasies.

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Trump’s pledge to repeal the payroll tax fits into that. His order on Saturday allows employers to temporarily stop collecting the tax. But the order does not eliminate the tax — workers would have to pay everything they owe in 2021 — and it created instant confusion for companies and businesses across the country.

When confronted with that reality, Trump said he would work to eliminate the tax entirely if he wins reelection, opening Republicans up to charges that they are endangering Social Security.

Democrats saw an obvious opening. Joe Biden, the party’s presumptive nominee, quickly unleashed ads and an op-ed in Florida attacking Trump’s “reckless war against Social Security,” which is critical to millions of seniors in the state.

Many Republicans would rather avoid that fight. But some of Trump’s most loyal supporters trust his political instincts.

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“When people are hurting economically, I think it makes sense for politicians to find ways to help them,” said Matt Schlapp, a lobbyist who chairs the American Conservative Union.

He argues that Social Security is already on weak footing, and Trump’s proposal would force a reckoning from Democrats, who have rejected previous Republican efforts to overhaul the system.

“I think there are better ways to tax people than on their jobs,” he said.

But if Trump’s first term is any indication, there is little certainty he will release a plan to Congress to reform Social Security if he wins a second term. And as even Trump acknowledged in his book, his lack of follow-through may matter on election day.

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“You can create excitement, you can do wonderful promotion and get all kinds of press, and you can throw in a little hyperbole,” he wrote. “But if you don’t deliver the goods, people will eventually catch on.”


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